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National Geographic: plagiarist?

May 2018. Has National Geographic magazine overstepped legal limits with the cover of its June issue? Matus Bence thinks so. In 2015, the Slovakian photographer produced a photo for the British supermarket Tesco which is very similar to that used on the recent National Geographic cover: the tip of an iceberg which is revealed underwater to be an enormous plastic bag.

‘No plagiarism’

On 18 May, the Dutch national daily AD interviewed National Geographic about the dispute. It claimed the photo had been made the previous year by a Bolivian artist who won an award for it. ‘The jury at the time didn’t accuse him of being a plagiarist… and we also believe no plagiarism was committed’.

Infringement? Or unprotected?

It’s one of the trickiest questions relating to copyright: is this simply an unprotected idea being used to create an effect, or have so many of its specific elements been copied as to constitute a copyright infringement? Although some elements have been borrowed, such as the colours, the angle the surface of the water is viewed from and the bag’s very obvious carrying handles, the shape of the iceberg in each photo is different and the sky and landscape also aren’t the same. However, that said, we’d still give Matus Bence a good chance if it went to court.

‘Tapestry of symbols’

A similar dispute recently centred on a tapestry of civic symbols designed by the well-known Dutch advertising agency KesselsKramer for Leiden city council, which was very similar to a tapestry previously designed for Leiden by another agency, Same-d. However, according to the court there was no infringement, since the use of symbols as a visual language isn’t covered by copyright. Ideas and styles aren’t in themselves protected, which is bad luck for Same-d though not very creative of KesselsKramer.

Bas Kist